May 22, 2014 08:21
A new survey indicates that Russia's takeover of Crimea and its support of rebels in eastern Ukraine have turned much of the Ukrainian population against it. The moves could also impact Russia in other ways.
For many years after the fall of the Soviet Union, most Ukrainians thought their country should be aligned with Russia. That belief had been changing gradually over the years, but not anymore, according to the latest survey by Kyiv's Razumkov Center.
"Really, [the] main lesson is that the situation in Ukraine is changed radically," said the Razumkov Center's director of sociological research, Andrii Bychenko.
Bychenko said in a sudden shift more than half of all Ukrainians now believe the country should be more closely aligned with the European Union.
"The main reason why Ukrainian society changed so quickly to pro-European; it's mainly because of Russian aggression," said Bychenko.
Even in eastern Ukraine, where separatists are active, the survey shows only 22 percent of the people want Ukraine aligned with Russia, while 32 percent say it should be closer to the EU. Others have a different view or none at all.
A drop in Russia's popularity in Ukraine may be only part of the story.
Russian exile and strategy expert Igor Sutyagin, now at London's Royal United Services Institute, said that by empowering militants in eastern Ukraine -- many of them from Russia -- the Kremlin has created a problem that could backfire.
"They are currently highly radicalized. They have got that feeling of freedom, feeling of fighting against rules. And they have got weapons. Instability in the east of Ukraine is much higher than would be desirable just to control or influence Kyiv's policy," said Sutyagin.
Meanwhile, Sutyagin said, Russian President Vladimir Putin is facing another problem. His quick annexation of Crimea has raised domestic expectations of an easy takeover of eastern Ukraine. Military experts, however, say Russia would face fierce opposition from many local people.
According to Igor Sutyagin, the cost of such a military operation, plus subsidies for an area with serious economic problems and the threatened increase in Western sanctions, make invasion an unattractive prospect.
"It's already too costly for Russia to swallow Crimea. It will be just impossible to swallow the east of Ukraine, but the public is expecting it. So that's the difficulty," said Sutyagin.
Video of well-armed and organized Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine, and Russian troops along the border, sometimes make war seem inevitable. It could still happen, but many experts believe President Putin will conclude that the cost in economic terms, in Russia's relations with Ukraine and the West, and possibly in military terms, would be too high.
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